by Susan (Williams) Pagenkopf
Lew Williams, Sr. arrived in Juneau in 1934, aboard the Northland Transportation Company ship Northwestern. His new place of employment was the Daily Alaska Empire, owned by Governor John Troy and published by his son in law, Bob Bender.
Lew was raised in Oregon and attended Oregon Agricultural College, now Oregon State. He had served in the U.S. Navy during World War I as a radio operator. Since that time he had worked on newspapers in Washington and Oregon as a reporter, editor or publisher. In newspaper circles, he had become well known as a political reporter with a remarkable memory and a dry wit.
It was not until May 1935, that Lew’s family joined him in Juneau. His wife Winifred (Winnie) and their three children, Lew, Jr., Jane and Susan, came north on Alaska Steam’s Yukon.
Winnie, too, had been a radio operator, having earned her amateur radio operator’s licenses as a teenager. She had also done a stint as part of a song and dance team at the Pantages Theater in Tacoma. When she met Lew, she was a reporter on the Tacoma Ledger.
In the first year of our life in Juneau, Winnie wrote many letters to her only sister in Tacoma. Her reportorial skill is evident in the vivid descriptions of life in Juneau at that time. Here are excerpts from those mostly handwritten letters transcribed true to their abbreviated, casual style and punctuation.
From a letter written July 5-7, 1935: “...Now I’ll have to hurry this up & get it to the P.O. before it closes so it will go at 2 a.m. on the Yukon. Nothing much has happened except that we went ‘placer mining’ today - accidentally. It was a grand & glorious day today – darn hot if you must know so we took a walk up the Basin Road. We hadn’t been up there for a month or so & my, the snow is going off the mts. fast. Mt. Juneau is just about bare & Mt. Roberts is shedding almost as fast. It was so hot that me & the old gent got tired & found a beautiful spot where it was nice & shady & sat down & let the younger generation sport about. We were sitting by Gold Creek which is famous...as being the first place gold was discovered...Today the A.J. mine washes its ore in it & of course the creek is awfully dirty. But the kids went in wading & Jane came along carrying a big rock & asking if it had gold in it. Honestly, it was full of it. We got out a big handful but of course it isn’t worth much as it’s still full of rock too, but was the first real, raw gold I’ve ever seen. There’s a fellow here in Juneau who makes about $2.00 a day working over old diggings and taking out gold...”
In a letter in August, 1935, Winnie talked about Douglas. “I’m so tired tonight I can hardly wiggle. It has poured all week but my gosh, this morning dawned with a beautiful, clear day so we decided to go hiking. We’ve never been to Douglas - across the channel so we took the 12:30 ferry & went over there...The ferries up here are just little tug boats - ours was named the Teddy.... Douglas is certainly quite a town. At one time there were 4 or 5 thousand people there but after the mine cave-in (they were digging under the channel & the thing caved in & of course the bay on top of it) I guess people just turned the keys in their doors and walked out...I guess 3 or 4 hundred people live there now & it’s really a beautiful place, as it has more level ground than this side of the channel. Anyway, we hiked down the road opposite our Thane road. We walked 12 million ties at least, where the old mine railroad used to run & saw mine cars, filled & all grass grown that had probably been left just as they stood when the cave-in occurred. That side of the channel has a swell beach. Nice white sand...”
By October, 1935, the new bridge from Juneau to Douglas was completed. “Today is a big day in (Juneau), the long hoped for Douglas Bridge is being dedicated. The Empire put out a 24 page special edition this morning and I think it’s swell...”
Winnie added another interesting bit about the local folks in that letter: “The day before Armistice Day Lew & I went down to see Wallace Beery in ‘West Point of the Air...Wallace Beery’s cousin plays the organ in the Presbyterian church down on the corner. They live here in Juneau.” (The cousin was Carol Beery Davis.)
In a letter from February 1936, Winnie told Bertha a bit about skiing. “Last Sun. Lew, Jr. & I went over to the Douglas ski trail...The trail they ski down is 4 miles long & boy, is it grand! Now I’m all enthused about skiing. I tried to use Jr.’s but he doesn’t have bindings - only straps across his toes & no poles or anything & I couldn’t steer the darn things but I tell you it’s marvelous the way some of those kids can ski & none of them have poles or bindings...”
Juneau had its share of trouble and sickness, as Winnie tells a bit about it in a letter dated March 13, 1936. “...I guess you’ll think we’ve all died or something & boy, for a while I was beginning to think we were going to. The past 2 weeks we’ve had the flu. As I remember it, I wrote you about then & said ‘to be continued’ & it was! First Junior continued by going to bed on a Monday with a severe case of flu. He had a high temp & was sicker than Sam Hill. The next day, Jane didn’t get up & on Wed. Susie had it...Thursday morning it was my turn. I couldn’t have got out of bed if I’d been shot for staying in. I don’t believe I have ever in a long, long time had so severe an attack of the stuff....Poor Lew was sure kept busy. It’s ‘annual’ time & he has had it to get out just about alone. But that office has been a madhouse & this flu epidemic is serious - it’s all over town & so many printers have been off. Lew has simply been working night & day & then had us to take care of too. Of course there were no meals to get. None of us ate a thing but egg nogs etc. for a week...”
When we came to Alaska, we did not bring many possessions - a trunk and a few packing boxes of bedding and dishes. As money allowed, new items were added to the household. By July it was a radio. “Pa bought us a swell new radio last week and last night we got KVI just swell...Also hear KOMO and KJR, KOL and all the San Francisco and Los Angeles stations too, but can’t get them until about 8:30 when it starts to get dark...if you haven’t (a radio) that reaches outside all you can hear is...KINY in Juneau and of course they play records, they’re not on any National hook-ups. Juneau is in a sort of hole and it’s hard to get anything even on a good radio. This is an eleven tube RCA...
“...We have a water shortage here just now. They’re building a new road up the Basin road and in blasting broke the main water supply for the town. Blasted out about 100 feet of water main. Consequently, we were without water yesterday but today they have us hooked up to an auxiliary supply for the mine, and boy, is it dirty. I think, from the looks of it the miners all wash their underwear in it before they let us have it. It stinks to high heaven too and we are all warned to boil it before using it...the worst part is that the main may not be fixed until they can get some more piping up on the next boat from Seattle. The water Dept. doesn’t know if they have enough on hand or not. You see how really isolated we are when something like that happens. Seattle is our nearest supply and that is four days off. The only bad thing would be a fire...
“We like Alaska as well as ever-even better. If anything ever happened to Lew’s newspaper job we’d never dream of leaving the territory-we’d take a homestead and go farming.”
Winnie is still in Alaska, at the Ketchikan Pioneer Home, aged 98 in the year 2000. Lew died at their home in Wrangell in 1972.
Wrangell was where we moved in 1939, when the Williams family bought the Wrangell Sentinel, the town’s weekly newspaper. It wasn’t the last we saw of Juneau, though. Lew was appointed Secretary of Alaska in 1944, and served in that office until 1951. When Winnie wasn’t running the Sentinel during that time, she sometimes worked for the Juneau Empire as a reporter. She covered the government offices and interviewed visiting dignitaries, Thomas Dewey and Earl Warren among them.
Winnie and Lew retired from running the Wrangell Sentinel in 1965. It was purchased by Lew Jr. and his wife, Dorothy, who also owned the Petersburg Press. Later, the younger Williams divested themselves of those papers and moved to the Ketchikan Daily News, which is now run by Lew Jr. and Dorothy’s three children.
Jane married a Wrangell man and eventually made Orting, Washington, home, although her sons, Harry and Gary Ferguson continued to visit and work in Alaska. Jane has several grandchildren who live in Alaska. Her daughter lives in California.
I, Susan, am retired from twenty-two years teaching in Alaska, 14 of those years in Juneau schools. Two of my four children still live here, as well as three stepchildren, two in Juneau. Wherever they are, the Williams’ grandchildren and great-grandchildren return when they can to this town that was the original Alaska family home.